All right, all right, settle down kids, come in, find a seat, settle – yes, you over there by the window – put that down and sit down please. Text books out as quick as you can. No – I haven’t had my hair cut, no I didn’t buy this jacket at Oxfam, text books out – page 25 – it’s time to learn about Red Dirt Music and the Turnpike Troubadours in particular.
Look – I know Country music has been REALLY popular in the UK for a few years now, yes, we all love The Shires (stop coughing at the back there) and we go to the C2C Festival each March and some of us have even branched out into independent artists like Aaron Watson and Jason Isbell, but it’s time to take you down a level and go deeper into the genre – away from the sparkles and glitter of Music Row and into the muddy depths of the Red Dirt Movement, of which the Turnpike Troubadours are one of the leading exponents. It’s time to stare Country music in the face and really see whether you dig it or not.
The Turnpike Troubadours are probably the biggest and best Country band you have never heard of. They’ve been selling out bars and halls around their home state of Oklahoma and nearby Texas now for over a decade and have reached that comfortable position where their brand of blue collar music shifts enough tickets and units for them to make a decent living and not need the attentions of the major labels of Nashville. They have emerged from a musical phenomenon termed ‘Red Dirt Music’ – a genre that gets its name from the colour of the soil in Oklahoma, more specifically from around the town of Stillwater. (Although there also appears to be a Texan sub-genre but that can be for another lesson. No, you can’t go to the toilet yet, we’ve only just started.)
Oklahoma has been the source of a couple of pop music movements in recent history – both Western Swing and the Tulsa Sound originated from there and the first known usage of the term ‘Red Dirt’ came in 1972 when the band, Moses, used it as a name for their record label. Red Dirt can best be understood by us British people as having a similar relationship with Country music as Indie does with Rock over here. It’s like a rebellious, often sarcastic cousin – telling it how it is. It’s like Manchester and the music scene there – grounded in harsh reality of blue collar life, sniping at the posh twats of Nashville in the same way the Gallagher brothers did with Londoners until they sold their souls and moved there!
Esteemed Red Dirt song-writer Jimmy LaFavre described it thus. “Go to New Orleans and you will hear jazz. Drive through the Mississippi delta and you hear blues, go to San Francisco and you get psychedelic music – you hear the Red Dirt sound when you go through Stillwater, it has to do with the spirit of the people there. They are not Texans, they’re Okies.” Whilst Cody Canada from Cross Canadian Ragweed describes it simply as, ‘Everything from Merle Haggard to the Rolling Stones.”
Ok. Brain break. Let’s take a pause, after all, this is not top set and I know you guys struggle to take on board information as quickly as the other, cleverer kids. Let’s take a pause before we discuss the Turnpike Troubadours in particular.
So, let’s look at the new album, ‘A Long Way from Your Heart’, by the Turnpike Troubadours. They’ve had a twelve year climb from the bars of Oklahoma to get where they are today – sort of Jason Isbell level, but maybe not now that his ‘Nashville Sound’ album has raised the bar a little for independent artists but not far behind. They draw the type of crowds that many mainstream Nashville artists would kill for and have managed to do so without selling their souls to the (big) machine. Famously, Dierks Bentley once commented, after they had opened for him that when he goes to Texas it has to be the other way around, and he becomes the opening act!
Their sound is the sound of the Country. Fiddle driven rock augmented by some wailing steel guitars and honky-tonk piano and websites like SavingCountryMusic.com are completely and utterly in love with them – in-fact SCM recently declared them, ‘the greatest Country music band in the world right now.’ Within their sound you can find everything, from Wille and Merle through to Counting Crows and the Rolling Stones.
Album opener, ‘The Housefire’ is the perfect jumping off point – it being like a four minute movie snapshot that encapsulates everything they do well. The song itself uses the recurring character of Lorrie as we see her house burning down. It is a perfect metaphor for that awkward transition into adulthood that happens we you leave your twenties behind (as the band are all in the process of doing) and real life bites down hard. Indeed, one of the things that long-term fans of the band enjoy about the Turnpike Troubadours is that many of their songs seem to be set in a shared universe, similar to the Marvel movies but with less capes and more steel guitar.
(Yes, we know Hulk Smash, Sally. And please don’t talk about Black Widow in such sexist terms Harvey, that might get you into trouble in later life you know.)
Lead singer and main song-writer Evan Felker has commented on this aspect of their music, referring to writers like Hemmingway, Faulkner and Joyce, “Those guys have recurring characters, you can fill a little universe, a little canon, it’s something that you can get lost in.”
So, ‘The Housefire’ is your jump-off point. It’s up-tempo, it tells an intricate narrative story and is damn catchy at the same time. If you don’t like this one you might as well go back to your Sam Hunt downloads and Florida Georgia Line shows.
There are plenty of diverse songs on ‘A Long Way from Your Heart.’. A previous reference to Counting Crows becomes more obvious on songs like ‘Something to Hold Onto’ and ‘The Hard Way’. Not quite as catchy as ‘Mr Jones’ but not far off. Funky guitars and niggly melodies abound as Evan Felker begins to resemble the redneck cousin to Adam Duritz’s (the lead singer of Counting Crows) West Coast, liberal dandy. Shared use of lyrical ambiguities and an ear for a chorus mean that both bands would probably exist in the same sub-set of the musical Venn diagram, despite their geographical differences.
The Turnpike Troubadours can certainly bring the rock. ‘The Winding Stair Blues’ is a frenetic hoedown of a song that stomps along like something from the ‘Dusk ‘till Dawn’ soundtrack. (What’s that Ethan? It’s a film from the 90’s – yes, I know you weren’t born then and I know that no-one watches films anymore, it’s probably on Netflix somewhere – yes, I do know what Netflix is, thanks, Lianne.) It’s got that sort of Tarrantino-esque vibe to it that is incredibly cinematic but the band can also produce tender love songs when required. ‘Pay No Rent’ has a sort of Isbell ‘If We Were Vampires’ quality to it – a dark love song that probably speaks more to the reality of long-term love than any of the big ballads that come out of Music City do. After all, as Felker says in the song, ‘It takes a whole lot of blood and tears to really love someone.”
‘Od Time Feeling’ is another example of where superb song-writing meets musical flair. ‘I ain’t made the the Opry yet,’ Felker sings pointedly, ‘but I can get along alone alright.” Whist on the Texan themed, ‘Pipe Bomb Dreams’, a fiddle driven song that captures both hearts and minds, he declares that, ‘I ain’t ever met a problem I can’t outrun!’
It is perhaps album closer, ‘Sunday Morning Paper’ that represents the band at their true best. A quiet, acoustic start gives way to some funky electric guitar and piano which then ushers in a Rolling Stones-esque chorus in which Felker boils down the whole shebang to just this one simple statement. ‘Lord, I know it’s just rock n roll.’ And there you have it, a shared universe, recurring characters, musical complexity and a whole way of life: the Red Dirt movement encapsulated by that one line because after all, that’s all it is, right? Strip away the trappings of our lives and the echo chambers we live in and we can probably arrive at the same conclusion. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are more than we are but The Turnpike Troubadours are your sound board, your wake up call if you like. The real sound of real Country music, music from the heart – from the heartland. Where there are no dirt roads because all the roads are dirt roads and the soil is red. There are more of them than there are us and this is the music they listen to.
(Alright, you can go now. Back to your ‘Goggleboxes’ and ‘Call of Duty’ – just try and at least listen to ‘The Housefire’ and ‘Sunday Morning Paper’ before next lesson, please. And even if one of you finds something in them somewhere that moves you then I will have done my job right.)